The Little Details

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Same Ways to Say Different Things)

The same sentence can take on entirely different meanings, depending on its context.

“You’re a real work of art,” the painter said reverently as he etched her figure into the canvas.

“You’re a real work of art,” the officer said as he pulled the passed-out drunk to his feet.

Even under the same context, the same sentence can change, based on how the words are spoken.

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she affirmed softly.

 

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she rolled her eyes.

What is interesting about this example is that in the first instance I communicated her sincerity by describing the tone of her words directly, while in the second instance I said nothing about her intonation whatsoever, I only detailed her body language. That alone will be enough for the reader to recognize the dialogue as being sarcastic. In fact the reader is able to retroactively apply the sarcasm to the remark, and still maintain a coherent understanding as they go.

I could also try to communicate the sarcasm simply by how I italicize the words as well.

Of course you wouldn’t.”

It might work, but most likely some readers would not comprehend the sentence correctly. Though they might if the context of sarcasm had already been established.

“I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but it’s not true!” he pounded the table.

“Spoken with all the conviction of a liar.”

“I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Of course you wouldn’t.”

 

The Better Communication)

I believe most readers will agree that

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

is better than the more explicit

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically.

This matters a great deal, because a story is appreciated not only by what it says, but how it says it. Two drafts could feature the exact same plot points, the same clever twists and turns, the same characters and scenes, and even all the same words of dialogue, but if one takes the route of explicitly detailing each and every moment it will be appreciably inferior to the one which utilizes subtle implication.

But why? If the final interpretation is the same, why do we prefer one version over the other? Let’s see if we can figure it out from a different example, one that doesn’t involve any dialogue whatsoever.

The bad man pulled out his knife. He put it into the other man’s chest. The man who was stabbed bled and died.

There was a shriek of metal rubbing over metal as he flicked his wrist outwards, and a bolt of white steel reflected in the moonlight. It streaked through the shadows like a shot of lightning, and like lightning it buried itself into a larger body, burrowed deep until it found rich, red oil, and burst it out like a geyser. There was a surprised cry, and a life crumpled to the floor.

Though the first example communicates the events extremely clearly, which style would you rather read a story in? Perhaps the second one was too indirect for your tastes, but at least it doesn’t feel so juvenile as the first. And let’s pause to consider that word for a moment: juvenile.

 

Intelligent Descriptions)

When a story is over-communicated it tends to feel immature to us. It seems as though the author has no faith in their reader’s imagination, or else has no imagination of their own.

We find it immature when things are over-explained, because then there is no cognitive effort necessary on the part of the reader. Usually we like our entertainment to engage us, to suggest thoughts and ideas that extend beyond what is explicitly spelled out. If the way a story is written leaves nothing to the imagination, then we are put into an inactive state of mind.

This is why the line

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

works so well. It describes the eyes, but it suggests far more. It immediately kickstarts the reader’s imagination, for it is hard to picture her rolling eyes without also conjuring other images such as her arms crossed in front of her chest, a slight shake of her head, and of course that sarcastic lilt to her voice. The text isn’t ambiguous, we have explicitly spelled out that she is disbelieving, but the full portrayal of that disbelief is left to interpretation.

To instead write

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically

does not invite much imagination. It is possible for the reader to start thinking up little details that aren’t described, but they are not being pushed towards doing so in the same way as with the first sentence. Worst of all would be something that denied all imagination to the reader. Something like

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically. She further emphasized her feelings with a small shake of the head and her arms folded disapprovingly in front of her.

It simply paints too clear of a picture.

On Thursday I published an interrogation scene, and the suspect was extremely chagrined at the whole affair. I communicated as much with my short description of her: “She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.” From that point on I made only the occasional update on her posture and tone of voice, only to reinforce in the reader’s mind that her stance was uncooperative. Between those moments I literally let her words do the talking, absent any descriptions whatsoever. What I did do, though, was to make each of her statements extremely short and brusque. That abrasive staccato should be enough to push the reader into imagining the scene on their own.

In my next postIn my next post I will return to the story, and it is going to feature two scenes that are quite emotionally charged. My intention will be to provide the readers just what they need to infer the atmosphere of the room, but not so much that they cannot apply their own interpretations to it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

Choosing Your Scope

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Last week I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the things that stood out to me was that is a long film. It reminded me of how long watching Avengers: Infinity War felt last year, and as it turns out, those two films have almost exactly the same runtime.

But while these two films share the same length of time, their scopes are drastically different. Avengers features a central cast of nearly thirty and thousands of extras. It is peppered with constant dialogue and frequent set changes. 2001, meanwhile, features four main characters, and maybe two dozen extras. It has very few sets, and extremely sparse dialogue. Avengers seems more expansive, but 2001 seems deeper.

Neither film is wrong for its approach, they are just trying to accomplish different things. Each of them are epic in their own way. Avengers makes you feel like you’ve hurtled across multiple galaxies. 2001 invites you to sit in an environment, and gain a real understanding of its weight and feel. Avengers weaves together numerous points of conflict to ratchet up tension, 2001 accomplishes the same thing by making you witness the slow, methodical betrayal of a single AI.

The idea of choosing a scope is common to all forms of creativity. In the same canvas a painter could either create a sweeping landscape, or a closeup on a pair of hands. Both option has its own intrigue and beauty.

These perceived differences are not random, there is a direct correlation between time spent on a moment and its perceived weight. An author planning out their next work needs to be aware of this fact, and leverage it wisely.

 

The Amount of Time Matters)

It is true that one author might evoke powerful emotions with fewer words than another, and there is no simple formula that can tell you X number of pages will result in a particular level of emotional connection. That being said, we generally tend to give the most value to things that last a significant amount of time. We do this in life itself, but also in the stories we read.

A character that is introduced three pages prior will not be missed like one that has been present through the bulk of a novel. A daring rescue that takes a mere page to perform will not have as much tension as one that spreads across three chapters. Merely using words to suggest extremes are not sufficient. Telling me that the situation is “very, very dire” will never impact me so much as spending a significant amount of time in an oppressive atmosphere.

Also, the amount of time spent on one item relevant to another matters. Not everything in your story can be the most important. You want to direct the reader to the things that matter most by breezing past the unimportant and dwelling on the significant. Thus a waiter that takes the main character’s order should be limited to a sparse description, whereas the main villain would be etched out in detail.

In the example of Avengers, it is an extremely fast-paced story throughout, except for the rare moments where it pauses in scenes that are intended to convey the deepest emotional impact. Just by pausing to let us breathe in that space makes them all the more poignant as a result.

 

Breadth vs Depth)

I mentioned above that 2001: A Space Odyssey felt deeper than Avengers: Infinity War. I chose that word deliberately. The viewer feels as though they are being lowered into its atmosphere and having it permeate them to the core. Every setting in 2001 feels more real because of all the meticulous detail that is in them. The viewer feels like they are inhabiting a place that actually exists.

Avengers, on the other hand, is broader than 2001. Where 2001 evokes only a few powerful emotions, Avengers runs the entire spectrum from joy to despair. Its people and places may feel more pretend, but they have a sense of extending out of the periphery and into the infinite. There is a sense that there is always something more happening just around the corner.

Breadth and depth are mutually exclusive. One cannot write both of them into a scene at the same time. The moment we pause to focus on a detail, immediately we have narrowed the scope of that scene. It is possible to transition between the two, such as having a broad montage that changes to a single scene described in detail, but where one begins the other will end..

 

Finite Scope)

The last thing to consider about scope is that it is limited by its bounds. A common consideration when writing a story is how long it will be. Once that length has been determined, there remains a great variation in what it can cover, but there are some practical limits.

For example, trying to cram an epic into a 500 word short story would test that format’s limits, as would employing a 500,000 word trilogy to cover the events of a single day. Frankly, I have been on the wrong side a few times of fitting a scope to a story’s length. Even my most recent work, Instructions Not Included, is already pushing out of its boundaries.

I am currently writing the last segment of that story now, and I have found that it isn’t large enough to elegantly tie off all of the threads that I began. So instead of having complete closure, I have had to settle for completing the first act. That inflection point brings some sense of resolution, but also begins new arcs that extend beyond the length of my short story.

I’ve run into this issue with my short stories before. Without meaning to, this blog has been a place where I can test-drive longer form stories, and see which ones I remain interested in after the first ten thousand words. Sometimes you need to start writing a story first, until you understand what it wants its scope to be. Then you can select the length that will accommodate it. In any case, come back on Thursday to see the conclusion to Instructions Not Included, and I’ll share a little more about what I think its scope and length should be. I’ll see you there!